CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three foremen from Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine admitted Tuesday that they not only failed to conduct required mine evacuation drills, but also faked official record book entries that would cover up their crimes.
Foremen Edward R. Ellis Jr., 38, of Justice, Donald R. Hagy Jr., 47, of Gilbert, and Michael A. Plumley, 38, of Delbarton all pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. to not conducting the mandated escapeway drills at the Logan County underground mine.
A fourth foreman, Terry L. Shadd, 37, of Chapmanville, also pleaded guilty to not conducting required emergency drills, but did not admit to faking the record book.
Each of the four was charged with one misdemeanor mine safety count of not performing the required drills, an offense that carries a potential sentence of up to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
During a plea hearing, Ellis, Hagy and Plumley all told Copenhaver that they also signed a mine evacuation record book, falsely indicating that they had conducted the escapeway drills that they skipped. Under federal mine safety laws, such falsifying of records is a felony that carries a potential penalty of up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hunter Smith told Copenhaver that Shadd had not faked a record book entry during the period covered by his charging document, from May 2005 through July 2005.
After the hearing, Smith declined to say whether Shadd had faked a record book entry during some other period of time. Smith also declined to comment on why the three other foremen weren't charged with the more serious violation.
A lawyer for the families of two miners killed in a January 2006 fire at the Aracoma Mine criticized the decision to not charge the foremen with felonies.
"The government should have made the appropriate charge," said Bruce Stanley, a lawyer for the families of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield.
"By the same token, surely no one can seriously believe that upper management at Aracoma was not acutely aware of the criminal conditions of the mine," said Stanley, who attended Tuesday's hearing with widow Delorice Bragg. "Yet only two widows and a few lowly foremen have been asked to foot any of the human cost of production over safety. Something is sorely wrong with this picture.
The Bragg and Hatfield families previously objected to a plea deal through which Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. paid $2.5 million in criminal fines, but government lawyers agreed they would not prosecute anyone from the Massey parent company.
Along with the Aracoma subsidiary, another mine foreman, David R. Runyon, previously pleaded guilty to not conducting escapeway drills and was fined $1,000.
During the Jan. 19, 2006, fire, a crew of miners -- supervised by Plumley -- ran into thick, black smoke in their primary escapeway tunnel and had to try to find another way out of the mine. Two workers, Bragg and Hatfield, became separated from the group, got lost and eventually succumbed to the smoke.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators cited a variety of major safety violations that led to the fire, including "prolonged operation" of a misaligned conveyor belt and allowing large spills of combustible coal dust and grease to build up on the belt.